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Jacob Burckhardt: History as Education and Culture
David Melson

In The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and The Greeks and Greek Civilization, Jacob Burckhardt developed a historiographic method that incorporated a criticism of Hegelian philosophy and his own background as an observer of social change in nineteenth-century Europe. His method, while critical of social problems and humanistic in theme, nonetheless, advocated a uniquely conservative doctrine. Simultaneously attacking Prussian autocracy and the spirit of liberal revolutionaries, Burckhardt looked to both his Swiss background and antiquity to counter what he believed to be the undoing of Europe. Furthermore, by examining the relation of contemporary culture to the cultures of the past, he developed a view of history that sought to benefit modern peoples, cultures, and governments. Knowledge of history, in Burckhardt's estimation, formed the very identities and essences of the peoples of Europe. Forgetting the past would only lead to disaster.

Chronologically, the historical works of Jacob Burckhardt lie near the end of the nineteenth century. He lived and worked during final decades of a century that saw European states transformed violently from agricultural states to industrial states employing technology unheard of before the 1800s. Coincident with the massive political and technological changes, European society changed dramatically. The industrial working class became, for the first time, a significant portion of the population in Western Europe. Furthermore, the French revolution of 1789 set the tone for the struggles between orthodoxy and liberal thought that would dominate European society for the next one hundred years.

Burckhardt recognized the dramatic changes that occurred in European society during his lifetime. He responded to them, not by advocating direct political change like many of his contemporaries, but by presenting the traditions of European culture as the highest achievements of mankind. He hoped that by educating a wide segment of the public, he could demonstrate the connections between the Europe of his day and its predecessors. Moreover, through giving the public a sense of the continuity of human culture, he hoped to warn of the dangers inherent in abandoning traditional culture for the sake of revolution.

While most of Burckhardt's writings contained elements of his culturally oriented view of history, he expressed his thoughts most clearly in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and The Greeks and Greek Civilization. Both works argued for a history of civilization focusing on the activities and thoughts

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